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Thursday, 20 April, 2000, 13:33 GMT 14:33 UK
Should we trust scientists?

Do you have faith in scientists, or has the BSE crisis and endless speculation about genetically modified crops made you doubt the experts?

Scientists from the Global Environmental Change Programme at Sussex University are warning the UK government that they must find better ways to restore public confidence in science, or more crises will emerge.

Next on the worry list they say are the safety of mobile telephones, and the effects of chemicals which disrupt human hormones.

Does the world of scientific discovery scare you, or are you excited by technological developments and what they teach us about our world? Do you think it's possible to reassure the public when there are so many horror stories in the press? Tell us what you think. HAVE YOUR SAY Science is a tool to describe how things work, and like anything else (cars, knives, money, medicine) can be very useful if used properly. As we are already aware with the above, the abuse of these tools can lead to disastrous consequences. Unfortunately the abuse of Science isn't so obvious.
Dr Jon B, Sweden



Whilst technological advances continue at an incredible rate, we have yet to decide where we stand morally on the issues that such improvements bring.

Sarah, Sweden
Probably the main problem with science at the moment (and the source of most of the mistrust and confusion) is that whilst technological advances continue at an incredible rate, we have yet to decide where we stand morally on the issues that such improvements bring. It is impossible to decide whether what a scientist is saying is good or bad things (and therefore if he/she is to be trusted), if you haven't decided what your definition of "good" or "bad" actually is!
Sarah, Sweden (ex - UK)

Science may be a particularly useful way of knowledge, but how much do most people know about the way its institutions are really sustained? Scientists say things they believe they have found out - and in that, like the rest of us, they may be mistaken and definitely remain ignorant about much else. Most scientists also happen to like doing and making a living from science. Therefore they often believe - as well as say -things that make it more likely they get support for labs and students needed to do more science. Is that corrupt? Or is it just dedication to a methodological cause? I guess the only answer is to read Paul Feyerabend, the late great philosopher of science.
Q, UK

It's not science that causes the problems. Science is after all a methodology to find the truth. It is bad reporting and deliberate scare mongering for political or otherwise ulterior motives that causes the problems.
Dave, UK.

In these times of politically polluted scientific culture, where scientists do take political stand, instead of pure scientific stand, it is very difficult to distinguish the expert comments from a pure scientist among many politically biased scientists. Now a days publishing papers in hard core scientific journals like physical review is some what depending upon whether you are well known in the circuit or not!
V.V. Srinivasu, India/Japan

What type of scientist? Psychiatrist or mathematician? Physician or Physicist? Would you trust your politician more than Madame Curie? If such global questions are asked one has to ask the reporter about his sincerity. This question in its simplification sounds to me as once more like: " Kill the Dinosaur Geneticists!"
Achim Strijewski , Ph., Canada

One of the most common problems with scientists is that they fail to inform the public about what they are doing. Sometimes scientists are conducting experiments that they would never be allowed to conduct if the public had any idea about what was going on. I wonder if this is intentional. I'm not anti-science but it seems we definitely need more safeguards and better training in ethics.
Elizabeth, USA

Yes, we should question scientists - to make sure we get a truthful and complete picture. But we should also question those who want to dispense with science and all the many benefits it has brought - medical, educational, and cultural.
Kevin Elliott, UK

Science is a tool to be used by Mankind to meet his ends. Its use can create problems for the human race as a whole, for example pollution of the marine environment. However we can also use science to solve those problems we have created ourselves. It's a question of how we use it.
Andy, UK

George Orwell and Aldous Huxley warned us against being lulled into evolving a technocracy replete with mind-conditioned zombies. Besides, unquestioning faith in anything leads to fanaticism. Scientific development and an ongoing drive to update universal scientific awareness must go hand in hand if we are to stay abreast of change and avoid becoming prisoners of our own inventiveness. We must be particularly mindful not to discard practical moral value systems along with the 'bathwater' of our obsolescent theology. This is where the secular state model breaks down and is shown to be pitifully inadequate. It is a real problem.
Simon Cameron, UK

I agree that it is business and the valuation of wealth and power that causes most of the blunders, deception, misinformation and consequent lack of faith in scientists. Also I try to remember that the one thing scientists prove conclusively every year, is that they didn't have it quite right last year. This is the one scientific fact I can trust every year. That said, I love the search and the discovery that science brings. I am, after all, writing this on a computer.
Ralph Rattelmueller, USA

Firstly, I hate the word "scientists" when the media reports some research story: there are geologists, microbiologists, chemists, physicists etc all doing very different work. And TV portrays us as freaks: why are the weirdo nutcases always "scientists" and not cuddly, loveable artists? People don't trust science when they don't understand it, but that's not scientists' fault - they don't have some hidden agenda -their work is usually for the benefit of others, without reaping huge rewards themselves. How many bankers/ accountants/ solicitors can claim that??
Julie (chemistry student), UK

If the public was better educated, they could make informed choices that scientists provide. But, since most people only have a vague knowledge of science due to television and movies, people are easily convinced of quick-cures and scary-doomsday scenario. If more people understood the risks and benefits of science, they would make better choices. Until then, the media will sell sci-fi fantasies and horror to an uneducated public.
Blue Jogger (scientist), USA

As I see it, the problem isn't with Science, it's with corporate science. Corporations who want to put advances in science directly to market rather than waiting to test. I don't see science itself and the pursuit of knowledge damaging to our lives or environment but the uses we put this knowledge to many times raise scepticism. I don't think we'll see immediate problems with much genetic modification but who's to say what will happen 20 years from now? The only way we'll know is by safely testing, OR else rely on short term tests and find out we made an irreparable mistake (or possible a good decision.)
Josh Clark, USA

I think that scientists should be trusted. The issue of how some scientists decide to use their science should not be confused by showing distrust in people working with science. Scientists, and researchers deserve credit for all the work they have done in order to eradicate some viral, bacterial diseases, and not to forget achievements regarding genetic diseases, and cancer using gene therapy.
Kanojia, USA

As we have become a more technologically focused society, the mistakes made or (more usually) the misuse of advancements is bound to have an wider impact, simply because of the greater impact that technology has in general upon our lives. Today, scientific error has as great a potential as political error to cause harm. It also has a similar chance of doing good.
Jon Wortley, UK

I feel that the general public no longer holds scientists in the same high regard they once did. This is likely to be ignorance on their part, due to the media using science as a source of hype and shock headlines, rather than actually informing. If the public could be made more aware of the scientific principles upon which many modern breakthroughs are based, they would undoubtedly be more likely to accept new ideas than reject them in fear.
Mark Cresswell, United Kingdom



There is a fundamental problem with the public's perception of what science and the scientific method is.

A Kirby, Wales
There is a fundamental problem with the public's perception of what science and the scientific method is. Because of this, people falsely assume that "scientists can't make up their minds." Scientific results come about through the proposal of hypotheses, and their subsequent testing through experiment. This is rather unlike other "truths" people are used to- religious dogma or the ranting of politicians. Those are matters of faith or opinion.
What people are misunderstanding is that whereas the results of experiments should largely stand on their own, what they mean, and whether the methods used are appropriate, are a matter of opinion.
It seems also that the waters are muddied in the minds of the general public by the lack of distinction between science and technology. I believe that our education system and the media are somewhat to blame for this, as well as the public, who wish to be spoon-fed the simple answer where none exist.
A Kirby, Wales

Being a scientist I would say you can trust an independent scientist (i.e. one not funded by a commercial interest) to report what they believe are accurate data and the most reasonable explanation for that data. Scientists are however just people and for every correct theory there were many incorrect ones that proceeded it. The question is not should you trust scientists but should you believe what they are telling you. The difference is a subtle but important one.
Dr Matthew Genge, UK

Ultimately most people are right in saying that scientists are just people who are doing their jobs, with their own particular challenges. What I think most people have failed to mention is that scientists are more and more controlled by big multinationals, which are ultimately amoral. Along with Multinationals we have 'democratic' governments, full of ministers who are all looking out for their own careers.
I think that we should take a more cautious view on scientific developments, remembering that there is always a price to pay. I am all for science and knowledge, but I think that science is being dragged down a road where the only problems being tackled are those where huge profits can be made. I think for instance, what is the point in having a cure for a particular disease when the cost of the cure is can't be met by the huge masses who need it?
Zafar, England

Science is wonderful, provided the scientists are moral and have principals they will govern their work. Unfortunately many times this is not the case. Money, greed and ambition blinds the scientists. Therefore - no at the moment I do not trust them.
G. Athanassoulis (Mr), Greece

I think that trusting science is the only way forward. Tell the Untouchable caste in India that they don't need science. Tell the 20,000 prostitutes in Cambodia that they don't need progress. Tell the parents of a child saved from death by cancer that they don't need science. Science is our birthright.
Lloyd Kilford, UK



A truckload of degrees are worth little without a follicle of common sense.

Kev, Australia
Why should the masses trust the scientific community, it spawns from the institutions of the establishment, adheres to "accepted belief" and bows to the demands of the powerbrokers who provide the funding for the research. Albert Einstein lamented his work on the Atom bomb, but no such remorse has ever been shown by his masters. Unfortunately a truckload of degrees are worth little without a follicle of common sense.
Kev, Australia

The issue is not really whether we should trust scientists. It is really about understanding the limits of scientific research and the state of knowledge at any point in time. General media reporting does have a tendency to oversimplify the issues in order to make catchy headlines.
The GM foods controversy is a good example. Most scientists would agree that there are many potential benefits in genetically altering crops to give a better yield under harsher conditions. Who knows, perhaps the tragedy in Ethiopia might be avoided in future if such technology is applied appropriately. But presenting this technology as Frankenstein foods does not induce a sensible debate on the subject. Gaining a proper understanding of scientific issues is not easy in a situation where they are so complex that few individuals can fully comprehend them.
Phil Hall, UK

Its not the scientists we should be worried about but those that blow the slightest thing out of all proportion. The big conglomerates are now using consumer's fear as yet another marketing tool, trying to give the public the impression that everything is zero risk.
Scientific opinion is in general a case of considering all the evidence and balancing the risk. If we always have to keep to zero risk we wouldn't have the electric light bulb, the gas fire or the motor car.
Brian Blackmore, UK



As long as science is away from religion, ethical mistakes of scientists will never stop.

Waleed Mohammad Nasser, Egypt
So long as scientists do not have a trustworthy code "common", written code of ethics, I do not think that they would never stop behaving wrongly. At the end scientists are humans, and humans are imperfect. Any human can fall in ethical mistakes, unless a really strong code, or belief, stops him. I prefer to use the word "religion" for such a code. Maybe others would prefer to call it "conscience", or something else. In summary, as long as science is away from religion, ethical mistakes of scientists will never stop.
Waleed Mohammad Nasser, Egypt

We are particularly selective in our trust of scientists and engineers. When it is clear that a particular technology has substantial benefits, we tend to trust, even in the event of mishaps. When substantial benefits are not so clearly apparent, we tend to revert to a default judgment, such as, "better safe than sorry". Sometimes we are wrong when we do this.
Thomas Potter, USA

The problem, especially in the UK is that we have the notorious "two cultures" gap in which most people that run government, business and the media are "humanities" educated and are often scientifically ignorant - they expect scientists to come up with new discoveries to save their face and profits, and suddenly disappear when things go wrong
Geoffrey Sturdy, UK



If science is to regain the confidence of a sceptical public it will have to take on the scare-mongering organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth at their own game

Jonathan Olver, UK
I do have confidence in science which has been properly peer-reviewed in recognised scientific journals. If science is to regain the confidence of a generally sceptical public it will have to take on the scare-mongering organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth at their own game, namely, to expose that they have a vested interest in what they are saying.
Jonathan Olver, U



Genetically modified foods are being regarded with as much suspicion as the tobacco industry.

Dorothea, USA
Clearly the only one who is supposed to be gaining any advantage from genetically modified foods in the U.S. is the farming industry. The general population is already drowning in too much food. And now that McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy's and Frito Lay are signing contracts with their providers to ensure that they will not be sold genetically modified foods, this is sending a clear message to the public that there are 2 kinds of American Giants out there; one who is on their side and one who is not. I would even venture to say that genetically modified foods are being regarded with as much suspicion as the tobacco industry.
Dorothea, U.S.A.

It IS up to scientists to reassure and educate the public, and to make the reasons for scientific uncertainty comprehensible. We have to do better. Scientists have a responsbility to make scientific method better understood. The reason why some scientists may take opposing views on a question is that evidence in support of both of those views might exist. The real question is how to evaluate and give weight to different pieces of evidence. Not all evidence has equal weight, and this needs to be convincingly and forcefully explained by scientists instead of retreating behind laboratory doors and letting the press or politicians try to do it for us.
MW, UK

Scientists are no more or no less trustworthy than general population. The worry is can we trust the people who control the Scientist and hence any new discovery. These people who fund the scientific research have their own reasons why they do it. Profits, Weapons of mass distructions are some. It is these groups we need to keep an eye on
K. Manimaran, New Zealand



Scientists are human beings too. They have need for money, prestige and status; the values that are the seed of corruption and unbalanced ambitions.

Mikko Toivonen, Finland
Scientists are the basis of much of the health and health we currently have. However, scientists are human beings too. They have need for money, prestige and status; the values that are the seed of corruption and unbalanced ambitions. A lot of scientists work for private corporations and are therefore only tools for the enterprise to gain more of the referred negative values. You can trust scientists as much as you can trust medical doctors; you have to check everything as far as possible yourself before trusting. It is a pity because the scientists are really needed and it would be so much easier if you could trust the book or report that you read. But you cannot.
Mikko Toivonen, Finland

Over the years, as some scientists have increasingly allied themselves with big business and government in order to get the necessary funding for their projects, the image of the scientific profession as a whole has suffered. Nobody fully trusts a travelling salesperson hawking their wares, so why should we fully trust someone who is equally trying to procure money or save their reputation?
Nic M, New Zealand

Ultimately it is no more reasonable to blame today's scientists for the ills that some of their discoveries have caused than it is to blame the manufacturer of a set of steak knives for a stabbing attack. The responsibility for these actions must lie in the hands of those who wield the inventions - governments and big business. So yes, I trust scientists, but I don't trust the people who fund them.
Philip Mulholland, Northern Ireland

As Mr. Simon points out, the average Tom, Dick nor Harry does not comprehend the actions of a scientist. This makes the populace vulnerable to a scientist's wishes. They could tell us virtually anything-and we would believe them.
Peter Crawford-Bolton, UK(in US)

I believe that science itself can do no harm, there is nothing wrong in discovering how this world works. I see no danger in mapping the human genome or cloning sheep. The only danger is fear of the unknown. When people have to deal with something they don't fully understand, myths are created. I see two ways to avoid spreading panic: keeping the society unaware of any scientific experiments (impossible) or keeping the society well educated and with some basic knowledge about these experiments.
Leszek R, POLAND



The only danger is fear of the unknown

Leszek R, Poland
Is the world flat ? We are fooling ourselves if we think we have any choice.
Nick E, UK

Yes, I trust experimental science.GM foods, such as rice and soy bean products are the best way of improving crop yields, especially in third world countries
Neil Davies, US and UK

An objective study of history pretty quickly reveals that while technology progresses, real social progress remains elusive. As a civilization, humanity takes a few steps forward here and a step or two back there over the course of centuries, remaining relatively stagnant. I have to wonder if the day Einstein predicted, of our technology outstripping our humanity, is already here? It will inevitibly arrive.
Johnboy, USA

As a former technophobe, I can empathise with those who harbour a distrust of scientist as we plunge headlong into the uncertain future. It is a bit unsettling to think that so much energy is being focused on creating new technologies when we have yet to reckon with the ones already created. I am not a reactionary, but human societies have yet to gain my confidence in the way they use technological advancements. I am not afraid of science, discovery or the creation of new technology per se, but I am concerned about the hands into which these new technologies will fall.
Matthew Fiori, USA



It is a bit unsettling to think that so much energy is being focused on creating new technologies when we have yet to reckon with the ones already created.

Matthew Fiori, USA
Should we trust news reports? Do they give independent views or are they biased? The public should be able to rely on information being presented correctly and accurately. Scientists have a peer review system for publication, journalists have an editor. If the professionals concerned acted in an objective, unbiased manner, there would be more trust and less fear.
Phil Adams, USA A little learning is a dangerous thing. I suppose that it is natural for the average person who doesn't understand the complexities of a given science to be suspicious of its practitioners' competence and motives. But let's not let small-minded ignorance be an obstacle to beneficial progress. Let those qualified to judge do the judging.
Matt Simon, USA

Really, the problem isn't one of trusting science, but of trusting industry. The world is inherently full of risks and danger, which science can discover, cause, or diminish, depending on how well it is understood and how it is used. Not every danger is immediately obvious, and by the time it can be discovered that some product is harmless, a company may find itself looking down the barrel of a mega-dollar liability suit.
Guppy, USA



Scientists are convenient scapegoats for the world's ills.

NM, UK
Scientists are convenient scapegoats for the world's ills. For example scientists did not drop the atom bomb, scientists did not feed cows to cows and scientists do not pollute rivers with hormonal-like substances. It is others who exploit the available scientific knowledge and to-hell with the consequences as long as they win their war, reduce their costs and maximise production.
NM, UK

I am surprised that scientists at Sussex University are looking to the UK Government for something they (as well as those of us in this profession) should be asking ourselves. Scientists are no different than the professionals in other fields of activity. While most of us toil at something we love and try to push a little farther the frontiers of our understanding, we have also attracted public attention increasingly for the problems, from prematurely publicised results, contradictory conclusions to drastic revisions of scientific beliefs, and scandals.
It is quite understandable if all this leaves the public a little more sceptical of what scientists have to offer. Self-regulation and appropriate care in public communication still seem the best route to restore public confidence in what the scientists have to offer, and we do have to be much better at that-- WITHOUT QUESTION!
Dr Riz Rahim, USA

Well, if it wasn't for the scientist/engineer most of you would have died before you were 40. Where would we be without technology? There would be no internet, no cars, no nuclear power, no space exploration, no cheap package holidays to Florida, no TV, no GM pizza and... the "no" list goes on!
Dr. S, UK



Eventually, science will improve to the point where the minds of all people can be downloaded into computers .

C M Sanyk, USA
Eventually, science will improve to the point where the minds of all people can be downloaded into computers and run in a simulated reality over which we will have unprecedented control. This should satisfy the safety nuts and immortality junkies. Once this point is reached, there should be no reason to fear science. But until then, the world will remains a place fraught with hidden dangers and no "Undo" command.
C M Sanyk, USA

It's not up to scientists reassure the public, but up to the press who should not try to blow controversial findings out of all proportion in order just to sell more papers by scaring the public.
C Green, Britain

If science wasn't in the pocket of big business I would trust it. Scientists tell us of the link between mobile phones and brain tumours, then claim no such link exists. GM food is safe, or is dangerous depending on which scientist you listen to. How are we supposed to take them seriously when they take diametrically opposing viewpoints?
John B, UK

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